Danai Gurira Laverne Cox

Thursday night, at the Mondrian Hotel’s Herringbone Restaurant, Essence hosted its first-ever Toast to Primetime, an event celebrating its October issue with trailblazing television stars Laverne Cox, Alfre Woodard, Nicole Beharie, and Danai Gurira on the cover.

The cover story examines all four actresses’ contributions to redefining the face of television on their respective shows: Orange Is the New Black for Cox, State of Affairs for Woodard, Sleepy Hollow for Beharie, and The Walking Dead for Gurira. Guests—including Cox and Gurira, as well as Pooch Hall, Ledisi, Terrence Jenkins, A.J. Johnson, and Essence Atkins, among others—gathered to celebrate diversity on television.

“Our country is really diverse,” Cox said. “We have a lot of different kinds of people and I think our representation should reflect that, and they’re starting to, which is amazing.”

Although OITNB is very much about race, Cox pointed out that many black, female characters currently on television are not defined by the color of their skin. She looked to Beharie and Gurira as examples; Beharie plays a lieutenant and Gurira plays a survivor in the zombie apocalypse. “Race on those shows seems to not really be an issue,” Cox said. “They’re characters who are telling a story. That’s what is really powerful about those moments.”

[Cox is also breaking new ground in her role as transgender inmate Sophia Burset on OITNB. This year, she became the first openly transgender woman to receive an Emmy nomination.]

Shanola Hampton, who plays Veronica Fisher on Shameless, echoed. She pointed out that her character is in an interracial relationship, but that’s something that isn’t really discussed. She explained, they aren’t treated as an interracial couple. They are just a couple. “I’m part of this dysfunctional community,” Hampton said. “That’s progression.”

Even so, there’s work to be done. “We know that we’re still not where we should be because we’re still asking the question if we’ve progressed,” Hampton said.

Wendell Pierce, known for his turn as Bunk on The Wire, explained that there’s no shortage of talent. “It’s really wonderful to see [Cox, Woodard, Beharie, and Gurira] on the cover,” Pierce said. “It’s a reminder of how much talent is out there. I look around this room and for the four that are on this cover, I can show you another 10 for each one in this room who are as talented. The breadth of talent is great.”

But, for Pierce, it’s a matter of what’s being done with that talent. Here, he expressed similar concerns to Hampton. “There’s going to be an ebb and flow,” Pierce said. “Right now, there’s a big ebb, but all of these shows could be canceled overnight and then there’ll be no black women represented on television. There has to be a vigilant, constant awareness of diversity and making sure that diversity is out there.”

There’s still work to be done, but Cox’s enthusiasm for ABC’s successful Thursday-night programming suggests that there’s much to work with: “It’s Thursday night. I’m really excited to be on the cover of Essence, but it’s Scandal night and How to Get Away With Murder night…”